By Rachel Gross Weinstein
The mission of Dallas Connect is simple: to provide Jewish sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders with fun, innovative programs and allow them to connect with other Jewish teens in the community.
The program, which just started its second year, is a joint initiative between BBYO Dallas and the Aaron Family JCC and is run by BBYO Dallas program director Tracy Davis, and JCC youth director Abbii Cook. They said many events in the community are geared toward younger children or high school students, but Dallas Connect meets the needs of the sixth- through eighth- grade demographic that may not be involved in other programs.
“I work with sixth- through eighth-graders all summer at camp, but during the school year, there isn’t a lot of programming for them,” Cook said. “This is a great way for them to stay connected, be involved in the Jewish community and prepare them for whatever high school youth group they plan to be involved with.”
The first Dallas Connect event of the new school year took place Sept. 9 with a limousine scavenger hunt that attracted about 60 kids — newcomers and holdovers from last year. They travelled to a park, Mockingbird Station and Victory Park in downtown Dallas and performed various tasks.
Other events on tap for the 2012-2013 year include a day of community service at the North Texas Food Bank; a trip to a Mavericks game; an overnight at Group Dynamix, an indoor team building center in Carrollton; a Shabbat pot luck; a trip to Six Flags; and Top Chef: Chanukah Edition, among others.
Two programs will be offered each month, with each focusing on either community service or a social activity.
“This is the pre- and post-bar and bat mitzvah age, and it is important for them to stay connected to their religion and have something for them to relate to,” Davis said. “What’s nice is that we saw a lot of new faces at our first event, but also had many of the teens who participated last year. We are happy that we are able to provide that connection for these teens.”
Before Cook and Davis united to create Dallas Connect last year, the program was solely part of BBYO and called Teen Connection; one program per month was offered for sixth- through eighth-graders.
When Cook learned about this, she asked Davis if she wanted to partner in order to grow the program and give middle schoolers another outlet to connect Jewishly. From there, Dallas Connect was born and has grown from the 20 to 25 kids that attended each program last year.
Although not every event is totally Jewish related, Cook and Davis believe that building relationships with each other while doing service projects and group activities will make Jewish kids stay connected to Judaism and help them become future Jewish leaders.
“There are not always innate Jewish values within our events, but it’s about peoplehood and kehillah, community,” Cook said. “It is wonderful when Jewish teens can hang out with each other in any way and, hopefully, we are connecting teens who may not otherwise meet.”
Davis added, “We want to offer kids a feeling of connectedness and give them reasons to come back. This is a fun program for them.”
Dylan Kort and Alex Shea, both eighth-graders who belong to Temple Shalom, attended many Dallas Connect programs last year, as well as the Sept. 9 scavenger hunt. They said what they enjoy most is getting to know other Jewish teens.
“The programs are fun and we get to meet so many new people,” Dylan said. “I really enjoyed the scavenger hunt because the best part was getting to ride around town in a limo.”
Added Alex: “The best part for me is that I have gotten to know people who don’t go to my synagogue. It’s really great.”
Dallas Connect is a non-denominational program open to every Jewish sixth- through eighth- grader in the community. For more information, contact Cook at 214-239-7189 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Davis at 214-363-4654 or email@example.com.